Thursday, September 3 , 2015, 5:59 pm | Fair 75.0º

Pete Peterson: Deficits Create Surpluses in Democracy in Local Government

As budget crises multiply, the addition of civic engagement paves the way for true community solutions.

By Pete Peterson |

They may be struggling to cope with California’s budget crisis, but local community leaders are unable to turn to the Federal Reserve or the U.S. Treasury for a bailout. Instead, they’re being forced to make painful decisions about what services to preserve — and which ones to trim or cut altogether. Faced with such difficult choices, a growing number of cities and school districts are trying to involve local citizens more directly in the decision-making process.

Pete Peterson
Pete Peterson

The late Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., once cynically called involving citizens in local government decisions “a device whereby public officials induce nonpublic individuals to act in a way the public officials desire.” But that was said several decades ago. Today, the budget crisis along with a growing number of successful civic engagement projects around city budgets both inside and outside California, are proving that involving citizens can be done legitimately and productively.

In 2005, facing a structural deficit of $2.9 million deficit, the city of Menlo Park realized it needed to reach out to its residents to both inform them of the tough choices ahead and to solicit their feedback. The project, called “Your City/Your Decision,” involved mailing to every household actual budget sheets with line items and dollar figures. More than 1,600 of these were returned, becoming the basis of a series of face-to-face workshops with residents and public officials. The results of these deliberations informed the eventual decisions made by the City Council.

In 2006, Morgan Hill also battled a multimillion-dollar shortfall. The city manager and city council invited its residents to a series of “Community Conversations” — two-and-a-half-hour facilitated discussions about the future of the city and what balance of service cuts and revenue increases they would be willing to incur. More than 300 people participated in the workshops, which were designed in coordination between city officials and the civic engagement firm, Viewpoint Learning Inc. of La Jolla. Rather than debating particular line items, these dialogues centered on various “visions” for Morgan Hill — each with consequent budgetary implications.

This past fall, the organization I direct, Common Sense California, conducted a first-of-its-kind Citizen Engagement Grant Program. In about three months, we received more than 70 submissions seeking financial and technical assistance to launch civic engagement projects on issues ranging from city budgeting to school district curriculum decisions. We have already awarded more than a half-dozen “Catalyst Grants” (of up to $7,500) to cities like Brea and La Habra in Orange County, which are planning participatory budgeting projects, and Colma (population 1,600) in the Bay Area, which is convening its residents to formulate a citywide economic development plan.

We also offered the city of Salinas a $25,000 “Common Sense Grant” in support of its upcoming program to convene residents around service prioritization as a result of significant budget cutbacks.

“The gap between service expectations by the public and the public sectors inability to deliver those services needs to be bridged,” Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue said. “Organized and informed civic engagement is one of the best, if not only, vehicles to energize a grassroots movement to demand change ... and understand what the challenges are from the government side to meet expectations.”

Local government leaders are realizing it makes more sense to involve their citizenry in the process from the beginning — to avoid having to deal with criticism after the fact, or even having to undo decisions and start all over again. But they are also reaping other social capital benefits. As one Southern California city manager recently told me about a civic involvement project in his community, “Honestly, my senior staff and I could have that (budget issue) fixed in about 10 minutes, but there would be ... no understanding and no community building. Plus, we’ve all done it that way for years and it ain’t that fun. This is.”

The challenge is how to encourage citizen participation in a way that constructively contributes to the decision-making process, and isn’t just viewed as an irritation — or worse — by local officials, nor a lobbying effort by residents. Reviewing the many Californian civic participation projects over the last few years, we’ve learned that legitimate efforts have similar components.

» First, there is a true willingness on the part of municipal leaders to intentionally incorporate the results of the dialogues into their decision-making process.

» Next, there is an agreement between city leaders and civic “stakeholders” on the information and questions, which will be presented to the general public.

» Then there is an intensive outreach effort to elicit a fair representation of the community.

» Finally, rather than the standard “town-meeting” scenario, the community conversation is a structured and facilitated dialogue between residents, as well as between residents and city officials.

As California’s budget crisis deepens, there are now compelling reasons for our state’s leaders to engage residents in the difficult policy decisions facing their cities and school districts. Seeking the input of the fully informed citizen has never been more crucial.

— Pete Peterson is the executive director of Common Sense California and lectures on civic engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

comments powered by Disqus

» on 01.07.09 @ 08:00 AM

One of the barriers to effective budget decisions at the County level in California is that the state continues the archaic, Old-west tradition of electing its sheriffs and other constitutional officers like D.A., Assessor, Treasurer, and Auditor. Sheriffs, especially, have become problematic in the budget process because they have created “citizen academies” which in effect become heat-applying citizen-lobbyists during budget season.

Cities have a better model of governance where the roles of public safety, prosecution and financial oversight are all hired and fired by the elected city council. It may not always be perfect (an independent auditor may be preferable), but it allows a “cleaner,”  less complicated budget process where citizen participation can be meaningfully encouraged. Perhaps Common Sense California could direct its attention to modernizing County governance.

» on 01.07.09 @ 11:41 AM

Dear Editor,

I commented under a pseudonym that only Pepperdine people would pick up on.  If you are unwilling to publish my comments, will you e-mail them back to me in a private message?  I did not copy them to my computer.

Your censuring is curious. 

FORMER BARBARIAN has an astute suggestion for meaningful change in our governmental paradigm.

And please add “Voter Registrar” and “County Office of Education Superintendent” to the list of “archaic” election-selected administrators.

The California Department of Education is investigating the SELPA and the JPA (Joint Powers Agency);  COE Superintendent, Bill Cirone, placed himself permanently on board.

Kate Smith

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

[Editor’s note: How very clever. Who doesn’t love riddles, puzzles and general tomfoolery? Now, if I only knew what you were talking about ...]

» on 01.07.09 @ 09:03 PM

I wrote it again and used my real name:

There are many “vehicles to energize a grassroots movement to demand change:”  Nothing like the stench of corruption to get our democratic citizenry up in arms.  Nothing like tyranny and oppression to get a good revolution going; nothing like abuse of power and betrayal of public trust to cause an uprising; nothing like child abuse and institutionalized racism to trigger parental outrage and student suffering.

Yup.  Santa Barbara is experiencing a parent-teacher uprising to overthrow a corrupt school administration.

Institutional change is difficult because it necessitates a quantum leap to a new paradigm. The old guard, “old school” or “good ole boys” can’t make the leap—-“they know what’s best,” “this is the way we do it,” and “if you know what’s good for you;” once they get to “you’d better…” you’re done for. 

The School-Politico-Industrial Complex is not about to share decision-making power nor have a dialogue; they have a vested interest in maintaining the staus quo.

Howard Gardner posits “The Five Minds of the Future:” The Disciplinary Mind, Creating Mind, Resolving Mind, Ethical Mind, and Respect Mind.  ( forum/democratic education) 

Neither Sarvis nor Cirone have the right minds for the future and presently, they are out of them.

» on 01.08.09 @ 12:07 AM

Didn’t I read in one of Kate Smith’s endless posts on just about every story on Noozhawk that she was going to stop posting here and start her own blog? My question: When?!!!!

» on 01.10.09 @ 09:47 PM

To Answer OMG:  Kate Smith is “Dismantling the Schoool to Prison Pipeline” ( and exposing school corruption in Santa Barbara on my website:

Why do you attack Kate instead of discussing the commentary?  Your comments turn me away from Noozhawk to seek online news services—-who wants to keep company with mean-spirited vipers? 



The Noozhawk editor suggested I get a blog, so I moved in on lehlthomres’ territory:

The Noozhawk owner, publisher, editor and journalist, Bill MacFayden, has called for a commentary with an “opposing view.”

As an educator, advocate, and activist, I hesitate to respond because the Noozhawk commentaries are nothing but a side-show to an exciting national debate.

School issues and conflicts are between educational “apples” and administrative “oranges” whereas the SBSD farago is about “chickens,” “clucking hens” and “eggs,” which my mother warned me about.

Santa Barbara has “egg on its face” and an upset apple cart.  Those apples, by the way, are rotten to the core.

I’m not very good in the kitchen.  (I’m a Jewish American Princess; we make reservations for dinner.) I can be found over at the Elections Office, jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

For the rest of the bloggers who hide behind pseudonyms and castigate whistleblowers while protecting white- collar hoodlums and thieves, please stop feeding us pablum and spam. 

Howard Gardner calls for the educational system to evolve.  Adding to his “multiple intelligences,” he now posits The Five Minds of the Future.  The Respectful and Ethical Minds find these commentaries unappetizing and unhealthy.

Stay out of our classrooms and get your administrative bullies out of our schools.  It’s time for you to clean up the cafeteria, and let us get on with educating our children.

» on 01.18.09 @ 12:15 AM

Sacrifices made by any can only be thought of one, knowing the right to make a place for all. Thinking about peace, piece, or pace is to think of:

(1) Future - thinking about numbers, generations, or conscriptions.

(2) Past - think about enumerate, foundation, or prescriptions.

By thought alone, any deficit inherent for any parent proscribes trivially in our nation.

Present is thought either a solution or for if, one will not think and come with answers. No solution will ever solve any existence for any problem that is past, future, or present.   

Everyone sacrifices themselves knowing to better the other is to think of adjusting; a just, or is and justice. Because knowing sacrifices, any will all ever have to make is the integrity to look past blessing for future posterity.

Prosperity lies not in place of contemplation, Justice reins all Liberties, so forever America will ordains.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.


Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.